Doesn’t my wealth make someone else poor? Aren’t we exhausting the earth’s resources? Isn’t capitalism based on greed? Hasn’t Christianity always opposed Capitalism? The answer to all of these questions is “no.”
For centuries people believed diseases were carried by odors and were certain that the earth was a flat area surrounded by water. The surface evidence is quite compelling. While we would consider most adults who hold such beliefs today a bit daft, one can hardly blame our ancestors.
Yet when it comes to economic issues, a multitude of intellectuals and theologians embrace the equivalent of “flat earth” economics … all the while dismissing those who contradict “self-evident” realities as nefarious characters with sinister agendas. (It doesn’t help that intellectuals like Ayn Rand and her groupies successfully sold the myth that capitalism is grounded in selfish ambition … supposedly building on Adam Smith’s legacy (a gross misreading of Smith.) ) Answering “no” to the questions above is a bit like being a modern day Copernicus or Galileo. So short of earning a degree in economics, how might we escape “flat earth” economics and get a grip on the counter-intuitive realties that we have uncovered over the years?
Jay Richards has just published, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem. This book is an excellent corrective to “flat earth” economic thinking. His clear and engaging writing (and sense of humor) make his work accessible to everyone.
The book opens with Richards sharing from his life story. He tells his early embrace of leftist radical ideals in pursuit of the Kingdom of God and how he came to his present views on capitalism. (A biography with which I have some things in common.) He masterfully explains some of the issues I’ve visited here repeatedly at the Kruse Kronicle (see my Economic Fallacies Christians Believe. In fact, it was hearing him speak once that inspired me to develop my series.) His review of the church’s history regarding usury was particularly interesting to me … both in terms of economics and in biblical hermeneutics. Great quotes are highlighted throughout the book, like the one by the founder of OPEC who said, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil.” (191) (He was highlighting the danger of projecting present realities into the future without regard for the impact of continuous human innovation.) Over the course of the book he identifies eight economic myths.
I’m sure some readers will immediately be put off by Richard’s blatant endorsement of capitalism. The term is frequently used as a descriptor of the entire U.S. socio-political-economic milieu. This colloquial use is not in mind here but rather its basic meaning within economics as, “… an economic system with rule of law and private property, in which people can freely exchange goods and services.” (163)
In fact, Richards takes to task the notion that consumerism is necessary for capitalism. I thought one of his more insightful observations was to see that consumerism is less connected with the biblical sin of greed and more with the sin of gluttony. This goes back to a long held conclusion of mine that we have no theology for living in affluence. Throughout biblical history and throughout much of church history our theology was done in eras of considerable scarcity among the masses. But today we have societies where the masses live in great affluence. Like people who have lived on the edge of survival for years and suddenly find themselves blessed with an endless cornucopia, we don’t have traditions and life patterns that control our appetites from unhealthy indulgence.
Friend’s occasionally ask me for recommendations of books that address economic issues from a Christian perspective. I have a handful of favorites but few so cogently address the particular question of capitalism as well as this book does. In the future, when others ask me what I think about capitalism, with few reservations I can hand them this book and say, “Here. Read this.”